Monthly Archives: June 2011

Top 5: Pitching Rotations – Revisited

Inspired by a comment left on my preseason rankings, and a bit of revisionism over at good friend Black Label Tennis, I’ve decided to revisit and revise my MLB starting rotation rankings.  With the MLB season nearly halfway over, here’s my take on the top 5 starting rotations.

Even if the Four Aces have been reduced to three, the Phillies still have the best collection of starters in all of baseball.

1. Philadelphia Phillies - I had the Phillies in this spot to start the season, and at the halfway point, I don’t see a reason to change this ranking.  As of writing, the Phillies have the best ERA in the league (3.05), the most complete games (9), and the best ERA+ (126). The Phillies have had 7 pitchers start at least 5 games this season, with only Joe Blanton posting an ERA above 4.  Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels have been Cy Young worthy.  Cliff Lee has had a few ups and downs, but has a 4 game winning streak during which he has given up just 1 earned run in 33 innings.  Sure Roy Oswalt hasn’t pitched as well as many expected, but even in relatively poor form (for him), he has posted a 3.79 ERA with a 101 ERA+.  Kyle Kendrick (4-4, 3.23 ERA, 119 ERA+) and Vance Worley (2-1, 2.83 ERA, 139 ERA+) have performed well filling in for Big Joe and Oswalt.  The Phillies have the best record in baseball and the largest division lead.  The only reason the Phillies don’t have more wins is due to an offense that is impotent at times.  For a great explanation of just how good the Phillies have been, check out this post over at Crashburn Alley.

2. San Francisco Giants - This was a tough call, as San Francisco and my #3 ranked team, the Atlanta Braves, have both pitched extremely well.  In the end, I decided to keep my preseason number 2 in place.  Each of the San Francisco starters, except Barry Zito, who has started just 3 games (there’s always a black sheep), has an ERA of under 4.  Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are studs, and pitching like it.  Journeyman, Ryan Vogelsong has been phenomenal in relief of Zito, posting a 1.86 ERA and a 200 ERA+ in 13 games (11 starts). Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sánchez have also pitched well. It will be interesting to see if Vogelsong can keep up his stellar performance.

Jair Jurrjens has leads a Braves pitching staff that is 2nd in MLB in ERA, behind only the Phillies.

3. Atlanta Braves - Though it pains me, as a Phillies fan, the Braves have earned this spot.  After finishing with an honorable mention in the preseason rankings, the Braves jump all the way to #3 based on the fact that they have a 3.1o ERA and a 123 ERA+.  Jair Jurrjens looks like the early Cy Young leader in the NL.  He leads the National League in ERA (2.07) and ERA+ (183) and has bounced back from a subpar 2010 in a big way.  Tommy Hanson has been nearly as good as Jurrjens, with a 2.48 ERA and 153 ERA+. Brandon Beachy has grabbed the 5th starting spot by posting a 3.22 ERA in 9 starts. Tim Hudson is having another good season, though not as good as last year.  Derek Lowe is the weakest link in the rotation.  Any team that can say that is in pretty good shape.

4. Oakland Athletics - The A’s keep their #4 spot and represent the first American League team to make the list.  The A’s staff has been as good as advertised and have gotten contributions from 9 different starters.  The worst of those 9, Graham Godfrey, has pitched 17 innings over three games with a 4.24 ERA.  The best, Gio Gonzalez (2.59 ERA, 159 ERA+), has been CY Young caliber.  Opening Day started, Trevor Cahill  has struggled as times, but is following up his stellar 2010 with a 2011 that is nearly as good.  Despite getting just three starts from Dallas Braden, he of the perfect game, the A’s have the lowest ERA in the AL.  Not bad for a patchwork starting rotation.

5. Seattle Mariners - The final spot was a tough call.  The San Diego Padres pushed hard for this spot. In the end, the Mariners (who weren’t even on my radar to begin the season) make it into the list because their rotation is the reason they sit just 1.5 games out of first place in the AL West.  Twenty-two year-old rookie, Michael Pineda has been a revelation for the Mariners.  One his way to a 2.45 ERA and 150 ERA+, Pineda has defeated the Phillies (6 innings, 1 ER) , pitched well against the Rangers and Yankees and given up more than 3 earned runs just twice in 15 starts.  Felix Hernandez has been good, though not as good as we have come to expect (3.18 ERA).  Erik Bedard seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in the Pacific Northwest, posting a 2.93 ERA in 14 starts.  The other two Mariners’ starters, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas, both have sub-4 ERAs and 2 complete games a piece.

Dropped Out:  The Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Red Sox and Dodgers both drop out of the list because due to lack of consistency from pitchers expected to perform.

Josh Beckett has looked rejuvenated this season and leads MLB in several statistical categories.

Boston Red Sox - John Lackey has been dreadful for the Sox.  Daisuke Matsuzaka is out for season and pitched poorly before undergoing Tommy John surgery.  Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are both pitching well, just not as well as last season. The lone bright spot for the Red Sox (at least in the starting rotation) is the return to form of Josh Beckett.  Beckett leads the majors in ERA (1.86), ERA+ (217) , is second in WHIP (.924) , and has thrown a complete game.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Who could blame them if they were distracted.  The team has been in turmoil since the offseason and just filed for bankruptcy.   Clayton Kershaw has grown into the #1 starter many expected - 2.93 ERA, 9.87 K/9, 1.029 WHIP.  He leads the league in strikeouts, and has posted back-to-back complete games in his last two starts.  Hiroki Kuroda has ably filled the role of Kershaw’s sidekick (3.10 ERA), but he looks headed out of Chavez Ravine.  The rest of the staff – Jon Garland, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley have all been disappointing.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Gold Cup 2011: The Final – Mexico vs. USMNT

This is the final that everyone expected, and virtually everyone wanted to see.  While the road to the Rose Bowl hasn’t been simple for either team (see the US loss to Panama in the group stage, or Mexico’s narrow extra-time victory over Honduras in the semifinal); was their really any doubt that the continent’s two juggernauts would be vying for the regional title?  Since the Gold Cup began in 1991, either the US (4 wins, 3 runner-up finishes) or Mexico (5 wins, 1 runner-up) has won all but one of the titles – Canada won in 2000.

With the region’s two premier teams playing for the title, the game has gotten a lot of attention in the national media.  This morning, ESPN had Alexi Lalas on SportsCenter discussing the match.  The Worldwide Leader couldn’t resist mentioning that the US has lost just once to Mexico on US soil since 2000, though that one loss was a 5-0 drilling in the 2009 Gold Cup final, though this blog post by Scott French of ESPN Los Angeles should make some USMNT fans feel better.  According to French, the US has outscored El Tri 21-8 in matches outside of Estadio Azteca since 2000.  Throw the 5-0 beating out, and the difference jumps to 21-3 in 12 matches!

Player/Position Comparison: 

Tim Howard gives the USMNT the edge in goal.

Goalkeeper - The easiest comparison of the bunch.  Tim Howard, as mentioned before is one of the best in the world.  He’s at the top of his game and a true difference maker.  Take a look at this save (about 2o seconds into the video) against Jamaica to see what I’m talking about.  Alfredo Talavera, however, has Guillermo Ochoa and his failed doping test to thank for his spot in the starting XI.  Advantage: USMNT

Defense - Bob Bradley seems to have found his starting back 4 with Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj all playing well in the past 3 games.  Lichaj and Cherundolo have been dangerous moving forward, though they will have to defend much more against Mexico than they have in previous matches.  The US back line has not conceded a goal since the loss to Panama but will certainly be tested against Mexico.  El Tri’s back 4 of Rafa Marquez, Héctor Moreno, Efrain Juarez and Carlos Salcido have conceded just 2 goals the entire tournament, though they have yet to be truly tested.  Advantage: Push

Midfield - Mexico plays with a classic four man midfield.  Two central midfielders (Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro) and two wingers (Andres Guardado and Pablo Barrera.  Barrera has played well in the Gold Cup, scoring 1 goal and assisting on 3 others.  Guardado may not start due to an ankle injury. If Guardado can’t go, Giovani Dos Santos would likely slot into his spot.  Expect Bob Bradley to start a five man midfield, as this formation has worked in the last two games.  While Landon Donovan hasn’t started the last two games, he HAS to be on the field.  He’s a big game player for the US and has played well against Mexico in the past.  Michael BradleyJermaine Jones,  Clint Dempsey and Alejandro Bedoya should keep their spots in the lineup.  Dempsey has been extremely good, and Bedoya has transferred his fine form with Örebro to the USMNT.  Though the US has played well, Mexico is better from a technical standpoint.  (slight) Advantage: Mexico

Chicharito has been on fire this year. Will the USMNT be able to keep him of the scoresheet?

Forward - Though the goalkeeper comparison is one-sided, this is the area of the field where the difference between the two teams is most apparent.  Javier Hernandez has been a revelation this season.  Chicharito scored 20 goals for Manchester United in 45 appearances and has netted another 10 goals in 8 appearances for El Tri.  Seven of those goals have come in the Gold Cup.  With Jozy Altidore out with a hamstring injury, the US will likely start 18-year-old Juan Agudelo up top.  Agudelo has shown flashes, but he’s no match for Hernandez.  Advantage: Mexico

Prediction - While Mexico holds the advantage from an individual talent perspective, the US is greater than the sum of its parts.  In addition to the team mentality that permeates the USMNT camp, the US team believes it can beat Mexico.  No matter how partisan the crowd, and in Southern California it will likely be extremely pro-Mexico, the USMNT has proven time and again that it has the mentality necessary to defeat its southern rivals.  Score: USMNT 2 – Mexico 1. 

Gold Cup 2011: Jamaica-US Preview

Thanks to this absolute laser by Jozy Altidore, the US beat Guadeloupe to advance to the knockout round of the 2011 Gold Cup.  Despite this victory, the US finished second in their group and drew Jamaica in the quarterfinals.  On current form, this could be an extremely tough game for the Yanks.  The Reggae Boyz have been one of the most impressive sides in the tournament, while the Yanks have underperformed.

Despite the uninspired performance of the USMNT, ESPN’s Five Aside Blog had this to say about the upcoming match:

The United States failed to win its group for the first time in Gold Cup history. As Group C runner-up, the United States faces Group B winner Jamaica, the only team other than Mexico to win all of its group games. USA has reached the semis in nine of the 10 previous tournaments, while Jamaica hasn’t reached the semifinals since 1998. Despite tournament form, SPI rates USA an 83.9 percent favorite to advance and extend its unbeaten (9-0-8) record against the Reggae Boyz. Jamaica has lost all four of its Gold Cup elimination games.1

Clearly, the SPI algorithm thinks the US will be able to overcome its malaise and put in the kind of performance American fans expect.

Player/Position Comparison:

Goalkeeper -  Tim Howard has been stellar for years and cannot be blamed for the loss to Panama.  He is one of the best keepers in England and arguably the world.  The US is lucky to have him guarding their goal.  Donovan Ricketts has been a rock in goal during the tournament, leading a defense that has yet to concede.  He’s also posted 6 clean sheets for the L.A. Galaxy this season.  Despite this good form, this comparison is simple.  One of the best in the MLS vs. one of the best in the EPL.   Advantage: USMNT

Defense - The Jamaican defense has yet to concede a goal, though part of that is probably thanks to the impotent competition they faced in the group stage.  Jamaica’s defense should not be discounted as three of the four starters play in MLS and they have paired well together all tournament.  Shavar ThomasJermaine TaylorDicoy Williams and Eric Vernan have all played well.  The US has struggled to find the right combination to start along the back.  Tim Ream looked out of his depth playing against Panama and Oguchi Onyewu is still lacking in form and hasn’t made an appearance.  Not without their struggles against Guadeloupe, expect the back four of  Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj to be in the Starting XI on Sunday.  On paper it would seem the US, with defenders from the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the Premier League and the Danish League, has a better defense, but Jamaica is hot and is playing well as a unit.  Advantage: Push

While Bob Bradley stubbornly continues to deploy Clint Dempsey in the midfield, he's the USMNT's best hope at forward.

Midfield - Jamaica’s midfield has been on fire during the tournament.  Demar Phillips, who plays his club soccer with Ålesund in Norway, has scored three goals in three games. Dane Richards has been a terror on the wing.  Jason Morrison and Rodolph Austin, both of the Norwegian Tippeligaen have also put in solid efforts. The US midfield should be its strength.  With Landon Donovan on the left and Michael Bradley in the center the Yanks have two midfielders who have proven they can play at the top club level.  Who lines up on the right and in the center next to Bradley is a different story.  Jermaine Jones has not played his best during the Gold Cup, though Bob Bradley seems to be enamored with the former German under-20 international.  Clint Dempsey has lined up on the right, but as stated in a previous post, his best position for the USMNT may be up top.  Alejandro Bedoya has provided a spark off the bench and Sascha Kljestan has reignited his international career with a good showing.  Again, the US has a better midfield on paper, but the Reggae Boyz have been on fire this tournament.  Advantage: USMNT

Forwards – Another area where the USMNT has better players on paper – if you include Clint Dempsey.  As with players across the rest of the pitch, the Jamaican forwards have had a great tournament.  Led by San Jose Earthquakes striker, Ryan Johnson, the Jamaican front line has both scored goals and set up Jamaica’s lethal wingers.  Providing support for Johnson are Keammar Daley who plies his trade in the Jamaican Premier League and Luton Shelton of Norwegian side Vålerenga IF. Both have scored and assisted in Jamaica’s group games.  On the opposite side of the pitch, Jozy Altidore has looked great this tournament.  While still prone to lapses in concentration, he has provided 2 of the US’s 4 goals and assisted on another.  His wonder strike against Guadeloupe should have him feeling confident.  The rest of the US forward contingent has been less than stellar.  Chris Wondolowski has been wasteful in front of goal (see  this video) and Juan Agudelo is still learning.  With Bob Bradley seemingly unable to imagine Clint Dempsey as a forward, the US could be in trouble. Advantage: Jamaica

Coaching Staff - Let’s not even go there…

On paper, the US has better players than Jamaica.  More US players play in the top leagues around the world than the current Jamaican squad.  On form, the Jamaican squad is playing better than the USMNT, though they were in the easiest of the three groups. Is Jamaica’s form entirely due to its easy group, or are they a team to be reckoned with?  The USMNT, its fans and the rest of CONCACAF will know the answer on Sunday afternoon.

Prediction - Jamaica will make it tough, but I expect the real US team to show up for this game.  USMNT 2 – Jamaica 1.

 

Gold Cup 2011: USMNT 1 – Panama 2 – The Fallout

Photo of soccer coach, Bob Bradley. Wilson Won...

While willing to give Bob Bradley the benefit of the doubt, the USMNT cannot continue to lose matches to inferior sides. (Image via Wikipedia)

I could start this post, as I am sure many have started (and will start) with a call to have Bob Bradley removed from his position at the helm of the United States Men’s National Team.  I’m not going to do that.  Every time the United States suffers a defeat, whether to a CONCACAF minnow or a European power, US soccer fans call for his dismissal.  Do I think Bradley has shortcomings as a coach? Yes.  Do I think the USSF should fire him immediately? No.  Do I think the US needs to re-evaluate its coaching staff after the Gold Cup? Yes.  As Brent Latham at The USA 10 Kit wrote:

Coach Bob Bradley, 3.5 – Did what he could with limited resources, but then again, it’s a hole he got himself into. Who on that bench was going to really help him? At some point, you really do have to ask if he’s capable of getting the best out of the resources at his disposal. That moment is now sooner rather than later.

While I am not calling for his ouster, it does seem curious that Bradley continually ignores the fact that his best forward is playing in the midfield.  Clint Dempsey has shown time and again, both with the USMNT and at Fulham, that he is best when he’s near the goal.  He has the strength, vision and creativity to pull off some shots that most of the forwards in the US pool would never dream about.  His record in front of goal the last several seasons and especially this season (12 goals, 3 assists) show that Deuce needs to play up top.  If Dempsey playing at forward would allow Bradley to keep Juan Agudelo on the bench where he could be used as a sub late in the game – something that has worked well for the US since Agudelo’s introduction to the senior team (obviously Chris Wondolowski is not the answer, if you don’t believe me, watch this video - virtually any professional soccer player should have buried that shot!).

For a more in-depth review of how the boys played last night, check the post from The USA 10 Kit, Goal.com, or the NY Times’ Goal blog.

Despite the loss to Panama, the US could still raise this trophy on June 25 in the Rose Bowl.

Beyond raising questions about the direction of the USMNT, what does this loss mean for the Yanks’ more immediate future in this tournament?  With the loss, the US sits in 2nd place in group C behind Panama, who has collected  6 points from their two matches.  The US plays Guadeloupe in their final group game.  Guadeloupe has shown in past Gold Cup editions that they have some quality (finishing 4th in 2007 and 6th in 2009), and gave both Panama and Canada scares this year.  Despite playing both Canada and Panama tough, this is a team the Yanks should beat.  Winning assures the US of a spot in the quarterfinal. Where they will finish in the group gets more complicated.

Possible Outcomes:

  •  If the US wins and Canada defeats Panama by fewer than 4 goals, the US would finish first
    • Quarterfinal opponent – One of the two third places teams to advance – Guatemala (as of this post)
  •  A US win and any other outcome from the Canada-Panama game would see the US finish 2nd in the group.
    • Quarterfinal opponent – The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras).
  • A draw with Guadeloupe would see the Yanks finish 2nd if Canada loses to/draws with Panama
    • Quarterfinal opponent - The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras)
  • The US could also finish 2nd despite a loss, as long as they lose to Guadeloupe by only 1 goal and Panama defeats Canada
    • Quarterfinal opponent - The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras)
  • The US would finish 3rd in group if they lose to Guadeloupe by 2 or 3 goals and Panama defeats Canada. This isn’t a death sentence, as they could still qualify for the quarters on points if either El Salvador – Cuba in Group A or Guatemala – Grenada in Group B end in a draw.
    • Quarterfinal opponent – As it stands now, Mexico.  This is the WORST possible scenario; thankfully, it is also the most unlikely.

The US plays Guadeloupe at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City on Tuesday night at 9pm.  Those interested in watching the match can catch the action on Fox Soccer Channel, or should check out their local chapter of The American Outlaws.

First Serve at Blacklabel Tennis

Hello, as you may know I’ve been writing sporadically about tennis over the last year for my buddy here at The Rally Cap and felt like it might be time to make more of a commitment.  So, I’ve started a new blog, 100% devoted to tennis, you can find it at www.blacklabeltennis.com

For quick hits, follow me on Twitter @VBlacklabel.  Join our Facebook fan page and keep your eyes peeled.

We’ll do some opinion pieces, some sparring (in a good way), some prognosticating, share some photos and if the powers that be comply, maybe even some interviews. There’s a lot we want to accomplish with the blog, but it all starts here, today, with this post.

So if you’ve followed my tennis writing here, hopefully you’ll follow us to our new site, http://www.blacklabeltennis.com

That’s it for now, but get involved, tell me what you think.  Let’s talk some tennis.

Don’t You Forget About Me

London may be the home of the world’s best known monarchy, but in the tennis world, Paris has seen its share of coronations.  Every May for the past five years, tennis fans, the international press and frankly the players, have trudged through the narrow paved pathways of Roland Garros, past the smaller dusty, red plots of Earth known as the outer courts expecting to see the familiar coronation.  The King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, wielding his Babolat sceptre in his left hand, was the man, until suddenly, he wasn’t.

Hey, winning the Australian Open and sweeping four of the year’s first five Masters events is a helluva way to siege the throne, no?  Walking into Paris holding seven titles this year, Novak Djokovic had suddenly relegated the King of Clay to second favorite, or bare minimum,1A.  Frankly, who couldn’t have forgiven the tennis world, even those who ought know better, for looking a bit past Nadal in their prognostications.

I, among others, have questioned Nadal’s motivation to stay at the top of the game and keep winning titles he’s already won so many times.  Monte Carlo, a seventh time?  Ho hum.  What did Nadal have to prove given his indomitable reputation on clay?  Then suddenly, a strange thing happened, he wasn’t winning them anymore.

What was supposed to be Rafa’s sixth trophy in Rome actually became Djokovic’s second title there.  That third win for Nadal on his home, if not beloved, court in Madrid was also snatched away by the streaking Serb.  Rafa won “only” two of the four clay court tournaments he entered coming in Paris.  The No. 1 ranking he’d earned with one of the greatest seasons of all time in 2010 was suddenly and dangerously on the line.

Then Rafa came to Paris, jumped on Court Phillippe Chatrier, center court of the de facto World Clay Championships, and went down two sets to one to big-serving American John Isner.  Isner, seemingly unaware that Americans are not supposed to win anything in France but wars, nor that no one was supposed to beat Nadal in Paris, put a major scare into the five time champ.  Nadal would win that contest and then even more inexplicably struggle against his unheralded countryman, Pablo Andujar (and by struggle I mean, Nadal didn’t utterly destruct him) in his straight sets victory.  Nadal himself said he wasn’t playing well enough to win the French Open and the masses agreed.  As Djokovic progressed through the draw with an air of inevitable invinciblility; Roger Federer looked as if he’d finally shaken the shanks.  Nadal was workmanlike, getting through, if rarely approaching his best level.

By the time Nadal faced Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals, every commentator and fan had read the tea leaves left over from Bjorn Borg’s reign at Roland Garros.  Borg won six championships here, beaten in Paris only twice and by the same man, Italian Adriano Pannatta.  Nadal was out to write his own history.

 

Forgotten mid-tournament as a true contender, Nadal would sweep past Soderling, work his way past up-and-down Scot Andy Murray (himself a forgotten man coming into Paris) and rewrite history by toppling the arguable king of tennis kings, Federer, to win his sixth French Open crown.  Nadal’s throne may have looked wobbly, but when the dust settled he would, for the sixth time in seven years, be the last man standing.  We had learned new things about just how high Djokovic could go; we learned Federer wouldn’t fade quietly, but we subjects had forgotten our history.  At Roland Garros, Nadal is the King, end of story.  Vivez Le Roi!

Roger Federer used to rule all corners of the tennis world outside of the red clay fortress held by the Spanish strongman.   First, Nadal would pick off Federer on grass, then on hardcourts, suddenly Federer was a king in exile.  With Djokovic beating all comers this year, Nadal, suddenly a tenuous No. 1 and a healthy Del Potro back in the mix, it seemed Federer was about to be erased from the conversation.  Just before the scribes could finish their narrative, Federer changed the game.

Even in his relative “decline,” there weren’t a lot of “bad losses,” but there were questions as to whether or not he could win another major, especially after Djokovic stormed back to beat him at the US Open where Federer is a five time champion.  Federer eased through the draw, not dropping a set, but never inspiring anyone, but his most ardent fans, that he had could again be the absolute best.  Beating Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open was a statement win.  First, it was a measure of well-timed revenge after losing to Djokovic in four of their last five matches (US Open, Australian Open, Dubai, a virtual home game for Federer, and Indian Wells).  The win also abruptly halted the Djokovic assault on the record books, handing him his first loss since November.  Even bigger, it kept Djokovic from that extra measure of legitimacy, the World No. 1 ranking.  He and Nadal have owned the ATP rankings penthouse since February 2004.  To put it in perspective, the last time one of these men wasn’t No. 1 was the week Facebook was founded.

Federer didn’t win the title at Roland Garros, but he earned back a measure of respect.  In turning back Djokovic, the heir apparent, and pushing Nadal to the brink, Federer ensured he wouldn’t be the forgotten man of the trivalry come Wimbledon.  This run of form puts him right back in the mix.

One last point here, with Nadal maintaining his long term lease on the Bois de Boulogne and Federer back charging at the gates, we can’t count out Djokovic. You don’t go undefeated for six months by luck, not at this level.  It is all “coming together” for the Serb and the rest of his opponents are going to have to raise their levels to contend with him going forward.  Djokovic may be licking his wounds ahead of Wimbledon, where he’s yet to show his best tennis, but forget about him at your own peril.  If he can win 43 in a row indoors, outdoors on hard courts and on clay, he can win seven on grass.

I want to reserve my final thoughts though for some people we’ve forgotten about for at least a year now, the women.  This French Open had the air of a resurrection for the other singles draw.  If you’re not WTA CEO Stacey Allistair or maybe Kim Clijsters, I think you would agree that since the Williams Sisters went into injury induced semi-retirement, Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva went the whole hog into the sunset and Maria Sharapova ripped up her shoulder, the women’s game has been rudderless, scattershot and snooze-worthy.

 Maria Sharapova, Roland Garros 2011.

First of all, Maria Sharapova continues to impress me.  This woman is all guts and grit (OK, and beauty) and even though she was outsteadied by Na Li in the semifinals, by getting there she signalled that she is again ready to contend for major titles.  Once a consistent, top five ranked, Grand Slam final weekend presence, this was Sharapova’s first semifinal since 2008. Just when we were ready to finally write her off, her performances here and en route to the Rome title a couple of weeks ago, prove there’s life in the (not-so) old girl yet.

It was also a good tournament for longtime breakthrough threats Viktoria Azarenka and Anastasia Pavyluchenkova, but they’re still a day late and a dollar short in my book.

 

Na Li, on the other hand, is proving to be forged of stronger stuff.  She seems to be made to peak at the big moments, getting to the final of Australia and then basically getting lost in the Outback before resurfacing to win the big trophy in Paris.  Li’s historic title, like those of Serbia’s Djokovic and Ivanovic or Spain’s Sanchez-Vicario and Brugrera, has the potential to radically change the face of our sport.  As women physically mature younger than men, I don’t think the fruits of Li’s win in Paris will take long to be borne either.  Suddenly, one sixth of the world’s population and a tennis federation that once held Li out of Wimbledon to play in the Asian Games just saw what’s possible.  I will avoidthe temptation to overstate what the win could mean to women in China and Chinese sport as a whole, but I will say, it has given us all a reason to pay attention again to what in recent years, had become a forgotten part of the game.  I predict in the coming years, that the women will receive a strong infusion of fresh blood from Asia, which has been largely silent to this point on the global tennis stage.

Paris is a city that lives with its ghosts in plain sight, that remembers rather than renovates.  Is it any wonder that this French Open has given us so many prompts to jog our own memories?  Congratulations to the Champions, rest up, don’t forget, you’ll be at Wimbledon in two weeks.